Children are like gold. They are malleable and easily impressionable. They have the ability to be molded and remolded, formed and reformed before the piece is finally finished. That final piece is what is referred to as a consciousness, or self-realization. As stated in the Afterword of Points of View: An Anthology of Short Stores, by James Moffett and Kenneth R. McElheny, “Perceiving oneself as separate from other people and things initiates the breaking down of reality that characterizes the mental activity of analysis. It also sets in motion the pursuit of self-realization that can lead to reintegration with the world.”(599)An example of that self-realization occurs with the character of Leah in The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver.
Although we are not introduced to Leah until she is fourteen years old, it is fairly obvious that during her formative years as a child she was greatly influenced by her Baptist minister father, Nathan Price, a religious tyrant and guilt-ridden survivor of the Bataan Death March who feels that he is chosen to spread the Word to anyone who listens, by choice or by force. The family consists of Nathan, his wife, Orleanna, his eldest daughter, Rachel, 14 year old twin girls, Adah (who suffers from paralysis of the left side of her body) and Leah, and their youngest daughter, 5 year old Ruth May. The novel itself is written from the points of view of the five women, almost as if they are documenting in personal journals.
In his never-ending pursuit to convert and save as many souls as possible, he volunteers to take his family to the Congo to run the local mission in Kilanga for one year. Upon arriving in Kilanga, Leah was assisting her father in “subduing the untamed wilderness for a garden.” (36), Leah states, “I know he must find me tiresome, yet still I like spending time with my father very much more than I like doing anything else.”(36) Leah, at this point in her life feels her father can do no wrong and believes in him as if he were a god. She even compares him to Jesus: “Some people find him overly stern and frightening, but that is only because he was gifted with such keen judgment and purity of heart. He has been singled out for a life of trial, as Jesus was.”(41)
Leah’s opinion of her father and her own world view begin to change as she is introduced to different ideas and ideals while living with her family in the Congo. In the Spanish literary journal article “Reading and teaching Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible as postcolonial”, Feroza Jussawalla, writes, “The child who functions as the hero or heroine grows up seeing herself connected to the land and identifying with the growth or independence of the country which usually occurs at the moment of pubescent adolescence– so that coming of age literally also becomes synonymous with coming into an awareness of race/ ethnicity/ identity or nationalism.”(15) Leah begins to develop a social consciousness when she accompanies her father to Leopoldville for the Independence (from Belgium) ceremony and the inauguration of Patrice Lumumba as the newly elected Prime Minister. She was speaking with Mrs.
Underdown, another missionary, about the fact that the white people have had mansions in which to live while the native Congolese had to live in shacks. She sees the injustice, but still believes her father when he says that the unequal treatment was caused and carried out by the Belgians. “Father said that is the Belgians’ doing and Americans would never stand for this kind of unequal treatment. He says after Independence the Americans will send foreign aid to help them make better houses.”(183)On the trip back to Kilanga, she begins to think about the welcome feast the Kikongo had prepared for them when they arrived in Africa; “How strange and paltry it had seemed at the time, and now, looking back, what an abundance of good protein had been sacrificed in our honor. A shameful abundance, really.”(205) Leah is slowly maturing into a person who can think for herself, forming opinions based on her own experiences, rather than just believing what she is told.
Leah’s sense of self and social consciousness continues to blossom when her friendship (and later, marriage) with Anatole becomes closer. Anatole was the local schoolteacher and translator of Nathan’s sermons. Anatole says to Leah, ‘”Open your eyes, Beene. Look at your neighbors. Did they ever belong to Belgium?’”(230) Leah begins to question her father. “Father had said the slums outside Leopoldville would be set right by American aid, after Independence. Maybe I was foolish to believe him.
There were shanties just as poor in Georgia, on the edge of Atlanta, where black and white divided, and that was smack in the middle of America.”(232)The more conversations she has with Anatole, the more open her eyes become. He speaks to her as an equal, not at her as her father does. They speak of politics, and when Leah tells Anatole she saw Patrice Lumumba’s inauguration, he said to her: “Well, then, you can make up your own mind. What did you think of our Prime Minister?”(234)When Leah replies that Lumumba made her want to believe everything he said even though she didn’t understand everything, Anatole replies, ‘“You understood well enough, then.”’(234)
At one point in the novel, the village was being overrun by Driver ants which were consuming everything in their path. Anatole is the one who saves Leah and Ruth May, bringing them to rescue boats. During the escape, Leah has the opportunity to speak to Anatole, and she seems to have found her true, mature voice, while losing her faith in God. “…in this uncontrollable dream Anatole was the one person who cared enough to help me. God didn’t…’”God hates us,”’ I said.”(308)She goes on to imagine her family as if they were ghosts: “My father was not a ghost; he was God with his back turned, hands clasped behind him and fierce eyes on the clouds. God had turned his back on us and was walking away. Quietly I began to cry, and everything inside me came out through my eyes. ‘”Anatole, Anatole,’” I whispered…I repeated his name because it took the place of prayer. Anatole’s name anchored me to the earth, the water, the skin that held me in like a jar of water.”(308-309)Leah is slowly losing faith in God and her father and is attempting to find a substitute in which to believe.
Leah caused much controversy in Kikongo as she was learning to think and speak for herself. Anatole and the Price’s houseboy, Nelson taught her to hunt using a bow. Leah chose to participate in the village’s group hunt, which was unheard of. Women were the gatherers, not the hunters. Leah actually killed an impala, but was not allowed to keep it because she had broken the tradition. The village witch doctor, Tata Kuvudundu predicted that horrible things would happen to the villagers because of this breach.
Nelson came to the Price home after this prediction terrified that he had seen a bad omen outside the chicken coop, where he sleeps. Nathan refused to let him in the house, so Nelson sat outside whimpering and pleading. Leah chose to act against her father’s orders. “’This is wrong,’” Leah said finally. ‘”I’m going to help him. Who has the guts to come with me?’” She could not sit idly by while somebody was suffering and frightened, and she certainly wasn’t going to wait for God to intervene.
Eventually, Nathan’s attempts at converting the Congolese fail, and, after the death of the youngest daughter, Ruth May by snakebite, Leah begins to see her father for who he really is; “My father was a simple, ugly man. Now he seemed narrow –witted and without particular dreams. I couldn’t stand to look at him standing in the doorway, his body hanging from its own useless hands for company.”(369) Leah’s mother gives away their belongings, gathers together her remaining daughters and leaves Nathan and the Congo. Susan Strehle writes in the article “Chosen People: American Exceptionalism in Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible; “With the collapse of their father’s American exceptionalist mission in the wilderness, the daughters turn away from the Word to embrace words—plural, secular, nuanced, spoken, interpreted, exchanged, and affirmed. They fulfill the potential of their first-person narratives, whether these are understood as interior monologues or journal entries, to use language to think for themselves about the meanings in their experience.
In the process of finding words to tell their stories, they move away from simple binary opposites and into the mazed world of complex alternatives. Rejecting their father’s arrogant claim to speak for God, together with their nation’s imperialist presumption to decide for other peoples, these children of exceptionalism speak only for themselves.”(426) Leah has found her voice and has attained a sense of self and purpose. She has also become very ill with malaria. They make it to the village of Bulungu, where they stay with Anatole and some of his friends. Orleanna and Adah return to the United States, leaving Leah to convalesce. Anatole promises Orleanna he will send her home as soon as she is well. When Anatole tells her she is well enough to return home, Leah makes a life-changing decision.
“My heart stopped. “’Where does she think home is?’” ‘”Where you are happiest.”’ “’Where do you want me to go?”’ “’Where you will be happy,” he said again, and so I told him where that place is. Nothing could be easier. I’ve thought about it long and hard and decided that if he will tolerate me as I am, I’ll decline to return to all familiar comforts in order to stay here.”(401)Jusawalla writes; “Yes, Leah does not want to be associated with the colonizers or the imperialists from whom she has come. Instead it is Leah who wants the freedom to grow into the land. She marries Anatole, and marries herself to the cause of liberating both Zaire and Angola and who remains in Africa, despite her husband’s imprisonments by Mobutu, as one “of Africa…’” (19)
Leah has evolved from the obedient 14 year old girl who worshipped her father nearly as fervently as she worshipped God to a woman who is a champion for the weak with strong opinions against colonialism and imperialism. She makes her own decisions based on her own moral compass. “Here Leah grows ashamed of her Americanness, ashamed of her association with the imperialistic instincts of her country and this is the awareness that her bildungsroman (a novel that follows a protagonist while they grow psychologically and morally) comes to. It is this final “aha phenomenon” of not being American that is the coming to awareness of Leah in The Poisonwood Bible. This is her bildungsroman–almost anti-bildungsroman. According to the German tradition, the hero/heroine has to grow into an awareness of nationalism–of belonging to a particular race and nation. Leah instead grows away from hers into another race and nation. But she does not do this as a hybrid. She becomes as African as her husband Anatole.” (Jussawalla, 21-22)
“Afterword.” Points of View: An Anthology of Short Stories. Eds. James Moffett and Kenneth R. McElheny. New York: Penguin, 1995. Jussawalla, Feroza. “Reading and teaching Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible as postcolonial”. Revista alicantina de estudios ingleses. No. 16 (Nov. 2003), pp. 165-175. Strehle, Susan, Chosen People: American Exceptionalism in Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. Critique. Summer 2008, Vol. 49 Issue 4, p 413-428. Kingsolver, Barbara, The Poisonwood Bible. New York: Harper Perennial, 2005.